Catholic social doctrine is indispensable for officeholders, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to understand it. The wrong way is to treat it like a party platform or a utopian plan to solve all of society’s problems. Social teaching is not the monopoly of one political party, nor is it a moral command that confuses the preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for bigger government.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicated the right way in his gracious letter to me: “[T]he Church makes an essential contribution to society when she raises up moral principles to help guide and inform decisions about public policy in a compelling way. We bishops are very conscious that we are pastors, never politicians.”
Policymakers apply timeless principles to policies that are necessarily limited by changing circumstances. The judgments of equally well-intentioned citizens may differ. Usually, there isn’t just one morally valid policy. Instead, there are better and worse ones calling for respectful dialogue and thoughtful judgment. The moral principles are dogmatic; the political responses are prudential.
Anyone with a budget to meet — at home, in business or on a parish finance committee — understands the trade-offs required in responsible budgeting. When income and credit dry up, the best will in the world cannot prevent cuts in expenses, including staff layoffs and wage reductions. Governments face similar choices, but their budgets also shape the economic future. A budget with low taxes, spending restraint and less borrowing can help restart the economy, create jobs and increase resources for investment, charity and assistance for the needy.
Asked about rising government debt, Pope Benedict XVI has said: “[W]e are living at the expense of future generations … in untruth. We live on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to.” It is immoral for governments to make promises they cannot fulfill.
Budgetary discipline is a moral imperative. In Greece and other European nations, retired pensioners and vulnerable citizens are suffering from harsh benefit cuts as a result of politicians’ empty promises. Preferences for the poor, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good and human dignity are disregarded when governments default and bankrupt economies stop producing. Economic well-being is a foundation stone of an enduring “civilization of love.”
These principles guided my thinking as my colleagues and I drafted the federal budget for 2012 (titled “The Path to Prosperity”). Millions of Americans are enduring economic hardship, so we wrote our budget to increase tax incentives, market freedom and the economic certainty needed to generate more employment and economic security. Economic prosperity is essential, but we believe wealth has moral worth when it serves higher purposes than materialistic consumerism.
In his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict warned that solidarity without subsidiarity “gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.” Our budget gives more power over federal anti-poverty dollars to the states, directed by governors and state lawmakers who are closer to the problem. It is modeled on President Clinton’s welfare reform, which transformed federal welfare entitlements into a block grant and gave states more control over its implementation.
Our budget helps the poor, first and foremost, by promoting urgently needed economic growth and job creation. Our reforms to save Medicare from bankruptcy provide more support for sick and low-income beneficiaries to choose the best health insurance plan for them. Our supplemental medical savings accounts help low-income Medicare beneficiaries with out-of-pocket costs.
The dignity of the human person, said Blessed Pope John Paul II, is compromised when bureaucratic ways of thinking — which he dubbed the “welfare state” or “social assistance state” — dominate our lives with heartless regulations and impersonal rationing. This is why our budget repeals the new health care law with its taxpayer funding of abortions, government control over the health care sector and panel of bureaucrats empowered to ration Medicare.
Catholic social thought’s paramount interest is the moral character of society, which takes primacy over dollars and cents. What kind of people do Americans want to be? We must not become a people of diminished hopes. We must not be a defeated people who worship the state as our greatest benefactor. We are called to be exceptional — comforting our neighbors in need while striving for a brighter future in this fallen world and for the perfect society that awaits us only in the City of God.
Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee.